Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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Producer/Director Arthur Rouse
once bloody ground
hunting Eden
for native tongues
apologetically eliminating buffalo
for sustenance
not sport or profit
or pleasure

un common wealth
with immigrants
and freedmen
who discovered black lung
was as indiscriminate
as calluses
& hunger

you remain north & south
interstate highways
your crucifix
blessing yourself with
64 and I-75

you have derbied
and dribbled yourself
a place in a world
that will not let you forget
co-Rupped basketball
your cash crop causes cancer
& the run for the roses
is only two minutes long

kin tucky
beautiful ugly cousin
i too am of these hills
My folks
have corn rowed
laid track
strip mined
worshipped & whiskied
from Harlan to Maysville
old Dunbar to Central

our whitney youngs
and mae street kidds
cut their teeth
on bourbon balls
and though
conspicuously absent
from millionaires row
we have isaac murphied
our way
down the backstretch
cassius clayed
our names in cement
we are the amen
in church hill downs
the mint
in the julep
we put the heat
in the hotbrown
gave it color
some of the bluegrass
is black

“Kentucke” by Frank X Walker
from Affrilachia

Producer/director Arthur Rouse and the staff of his company, Video Editing Services in Lexington, faced some intimidating challenges while producing a documentary on the civil rights movement in Kentucky.

The first task was obvious. The stories had to be visual. It was, after all, a television documentary. So Rouse and his staff would have to track down archival film, video, and photographs and find people to interview about the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in Kentucky.

“We got a lot of help from several sources,” says Rouse. The Courier-Journal and University of Louisville opened their archives, and Rouse’s team worked with every archivist and museum in Kentucky.

They also used national resources, obtaining artifacts from the Library of Congress, NBC, and ABC. As a matter of fact, Rouse says their request prompted ABC to dig deep into un-catalogued archives, where the researchers found all kinds of footage of the civil rights movement that they’d forgotten they had.

Rouse also dug—figuratively—into the attics and garages of those who were prominent in the civil rights movement in Kentucky to find the visual evidence to illustrate their stories.

“You have to ask people several times if they’ve saved anything,” says Rouse. “People always say they don’t have anything, but then the fourth or fifth time you ask them, they’ll say something about an old film in a box somewhere that nobody cares about. They don’t realize that what they have is a treasure.”

The Kentucky Oral History Commission, the Kentucky Historical Society, and the Advisory Board of the Kentucky Civil Rights Project were crucial players—consulting on the content and accuracy of the documentary, providing archival photographs and film, and knowing the people who had a story to tell and who could tell a story.

But there was another challenge: The documentary would have to engage the general KET viewing audience and appeal to high school students.

“We needed to make it more cool for kids,” says Rouse. “I didn’t want to use any ‘shaky cam’ effects, but I didn’t think kids would enjoy seeing just some old-timers talking about the good ol’ days.”

To find out how to appeal to young people, Rouse held two focus groups. Teenagers were asked what they already knew about the civil rights movement in Kentucky and what they wanted to know, what they like to watch and what turns them off, and what they think about using television in the classroom.

Rouse said the two groups were unanimous on one particular issue: They didn’t want a historian telling them what happened. They wanted to see people tell their own stories, then make up their own minds about what happened.

“These kids are very savvy,” says Rouse. “They know when they’re being manipulated by sound bites and images, and they don’t like it.”

Rouse proposed a thematic approach to the documentary treatment—focusing on young people who took courageous stands and risked their lives for civil rights. “I wanted it to be historically correct and useful to teachers and not a sentimental journey,” he explains. “But I didn’t want it to be a chronological, linear account of what happened.”

Throughout the documentary, Rouse used old photographs to underscore the theme of courageous young people.

“In each seven-second slate, you see a portion of the interview and then you see what we call the ‘fashion victim’ photograph of the person at the time of the movement,” says Rouse. “Teenagers see other teenagers doing really courageous things.”

Rouse also used a map of Kentucky to show where various incidents took place to further emphasize the history of the movement in the Commonwealth.

Meeting all the challenges while producing the documentary “just about killed” his staff, Rouse says. “But the result made it worthwhile. Kentuckians now have a portrait of an important chapter in Kentucky and U.S. history, and we’ve preserved on tape the living histories of the civil rights movement in Kentucky.”

—Marianne Mosley

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